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SA Census boss dismisses "illegitimate" privacy concerns

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South Australia’s Director of Census has dismissed privacy concerns about tomorrow’s national survey as “not legitimate”, fearing any boycott could mislead future government funding decisions.

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In what has been described by former Australian Statistician Bill McLennan as “the most significant invasion of privacy ever perpetrated on Australians by the ABS [Australian Bureau of Statistics]”, names and addresses collected in the census will this year be retained for up to four years, instead of the usual 18 months.

And information collected in the census will be matched up with other data sets from around government, such as tax, health and social security records.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon today announced he would refuse to provide his name on his census form, risking prosecution.

Australian Privacy Foundation Vice-Chair Kat Lane told InDaily there was no justification for the retention of names and addresses and that it would be “dead easy” to identify an individual once their name and date of birth is linked by the ABS as a “unique identifier”.

“Why is that personal information necessary for the census?” she said.

But SA Director of Census Lisa Moutzouris told InDaily privacy concerns about this year’s census were based on “misinformation and misunderstanding”.

“Those concerns aren’t legitimate,” she said.

“It’s disappointing that so many people have misunderstood.”

But she said the ABS would “try to understand what people’s concerns are” and attempt to assuage them.

Moutzouris warned that “if people do boycott [the census] … it would be a deficient data set”.

“To have deficient information could potentially lead to knock-on effects of funding not going to the right areas.”

Lane said she did not advocate any boycott of the census, but urged the Government to make giving one’s name and address voluntary on tomorrow’s census, for those concerned.

“The ABS and the Government could fix this tomorrow,” she said.

However, Moutzouris said she was “100 per cent confident” that detailed information about South Australians’ lives collected in the census would remain secure.

She told InDaily that the ABS never released identifiable personal information to other agencies of government or even courts, and added that there was a “community expectation” that the Australian Bureau of Statistics get the most “value” out of the data as could be achieved, and that meant linking it with other records from around government.

“What we do with the names and addresses [is that] we create a unique linkage key,” she said.

“[However] we store the names separately, we store the addresses separately and we store the data separately.

“No one person has access … to two or more [of those elements] at any time.

“You would have to work very hard … to find someone if you were looking.”

She added that the ABS had contacted privacy commissioners around the country about retaining names and addresses for up to four years, who, she said, agreed to the plans.

Moutzouris said any ABS employee, including herself, would risk jail time if they attempted to discover detailed information about an individual.

“Before we release anything, we check it for confidentiality – we take [privacy] extremely seriously,” she said.

“Our statistics are only ever released in aggregated form.

“I’m running the census in South Australia … I will see only one census form, and that is my own.

“At the end of the day, people can be required to complete the census.”

Anyone that refuses to complete the census faces a fine of up to $180, which can be collected more than once if repeated directions to complete the survey are ignored.

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